My latest column

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at
Tue Feb 12 14:26:50 MST 2002


I do hope that this is not too long for the list, but as it deals with the 
refugee issue in Australia it may be of interest.



Flagging in the Bin

In the eighties the postmodernists, who so dominated the universities, 
concentrated their fire and ire on the notion of the truth.  There was no 
truth according to the pomos - only different versions of events.  They 
also moved on to attack photography and documentary film as not being able 
to represent reality in any way; partly because, as they argued, there was 
no reality.  It is interesting to note that the academics that proclaimed 
the end of reality, managed somehow to get promoted in that very same 
non-existent reality.

But of course you need to be an academic with tenure to be able to deny the 
existence of reality.  (Perhaps that is one of the main reasons why tenure 
has been attacked and almost destroyed.)  Nevertheless despite reservations 
within the academy we can be sure there is a reality.  I apologise to my 
non-academic readers for making that statement.   I know you will not be 
impressed even if I assure you that there is still at least one university 
department in Brisbane where to say there is a reality would be to damage 
one's career almost permanently.

But the new year has made me bold.  I am prepared to risk all and affirm 
that there is a reality and also photographs and documentary films can 
capture that reality and tell us the truth of it.  Indeed sometimes a 
photograph can convey the essence of an era.  In my youth the photograph of 
the murder of the Viet Cong prisoner during the Tet Offensive was one such 
photograph.  I am also prepared to say that the truth of the present 
conjuncture has been captured by the official photographs released by the 
American Army showing soldiers standing over chained, masked, gloved and 
hooded Al Qa'ida prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Cuba.

I wish to emphasise that these are official photographs released by the 
Pentagon.  Just as the Nazis faithfully and proudly recorded much of their 
barbaric treatment of the Jews, just so the bastion of the Free World is 
anxious to let us know how they treat human beings that have defied them in 
some way. The French have a saying "pour encourager les autres" to describe 
reprisals taken against opponents of authority, and when we look at these 
photos in the press we can be sure that America is truly encouraging the 
whole world. The photographs are saying to us, "Oppose America and this is 
what you will get".

The prisoners wear goggles, which are taped over, and gloves and ear muffs 
so that they can receive no stimuli from outside.  They can hear, see and 
feel nothing. The trick is an old one.  It is called sensory 
deprivation.  They idea is to starve the prisoner of the data she needs to 
make sense of what is happening. The good old British pioneered it in 
Northern Ireland against the Catholics in 1971.  Mind you they did find out 
that, as a torture, sensory deprivation was pretty useless because it 
usually drove the prisoner insane and made the subsequent getting of 
information almost impossible.  Nothing daunted however God Old Uncle Sam 
is at it again.  It is probable you see that our American allies, the 
leaders of the Free World,  are not seeking information but merely want to 
drive the Al Qa'ida mad.

But I want to stress here that we need to go beyond being indignant about 
these photographs and the torture they so proudly and boastfully 
record.  We must understand that in a very real sense they mark the growth 
of unfreedom around the world.  They also seek to legitimate that same 
unfreedom.   During the American civil War, Marx said that the abolition of 
slavery in the Southern States was in the interest of the workers of the 
North because it was impossible for workers to be free in the North while 
workers were enslaved in another part of the country.  Similarly you and I 
cannot be free while the Greatest Power, the world has ever seen, feels it 
can parade openly its brutality and savagery towards those who oppose it.

The Geneva Convention states that no prisoner of war can be ill treated, or 
humiliated.  Yet in Guantanamo Bay the prisoners sit in cages open to the 
elements under the full glare of spotlights throughout the night.  Among 
them is an Australian, David Hicks; still our government supports fully the 
cruel and inhumane treatment that is being meted out to him.

Moreover the American argument that the people they hold in cages are not 
prisoners of war is spurious.  Because if they are prisoners of war then 
they are criminals and they still have rights under the Sixth 
Amendment.  These include access to lawyers and the right to a trial.

The great mystic poet William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence of how 
cruelty to animals and humans put all heaven in a rage.  Of animals he wrote

                         A robin redbreast in a cage
                         Puts all Heaven in a rage.
                         A dove-house fill'd with doves and pigeons
                         Shudders Hell thro' all its regions.
                         A dog starv'd at his master's gate
                         Predicts the ruin of the state

Of humans he wrote

                         Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in Eternity;
That is caught by Females bright,
And return'd to its own delight
The babe that weeps the rod beneath
Writes revenge in realms of death.
The beggar's rags, fluttering in air,
Does to rags the heavens tear.

I think of these lines when I look at the pictures of the American Military 
doing their thing in Guantanamo Bay.  I also think of them when I read of 
refugee children being held in detention in this country and of refugees 
going mad in their despair and mutilating themselves in our very own 
detention centres right here in the Lucky Country. We have imprisoned 
children and families with children.  We have driven them to despair and 
madness and then we have blamed them for despairing and going mad.

Ah, but to talk or write like this in these times in Australia is 
pointless. It is simply of no use at all.  The election showed where this 
country stood.  When Afghani refugees turned up near our shores we sent the 
army against them and in the election we displayed our gratitude to the 
Government by returning them with an increased majority.

Do Australians care about refugees who fled from tyranny and war and misery 
to seek a better life in this land?  Of course not, mate.  You've got to be 
joking. The imprisoning of the refugee children is popular in this nation. 
I used to look at Phil Ruddock and think that he was cruel, pitiless and 
heartless because of the inhumane treatment of the refugees.  He is all 
these things and more, but now I realise that he is also the average 
Australian.  Ruddock's meanness is typical of the meanness of this 
so-called Great Nation.

But why was I so surprised to find this out from the public opinion polls 
and the election?  After all this is Australia, you know, mate, where for 
decades Australian governments practised the genocidal kidnapping of 
Aboriginal children to breed out the entire Aboriginal race. Locking up 
refugees and being cruel to them is a vote winner for the government. The 
refugees are "wogs" aren't they? Who cares if they are going mad?  What 
really matters is that Australia has started winning at the cricket, 
mate.  Get it right.

Now we are gallantly boarding ships in the Gulf for the Americans to ensure 
that the sanctions continue to kill thousands and thousands of Iraqi 
children.  We are also gallantly handing over prisoners to be 
"interrogated". And the next time Americans head off to invade and bomb and 
slaughter and torture, gallant Australia will be there, my boys. Yes 
Australia will be there!  Whenever Empire needs a few uppity peasants to be 
taught a lesson, we will do our bit, mate. Yes you can be certain that 
Labor and Liberal will be "shoulder to shoulder" in their mutual 
determination to follow America into the everlasting war that President 
Bush has promised us all.  She'll be right, very right.

We will also have welcome home parades for our heroes who will have fought 
so gallantly for the Free World against the "rag-heads" and the "wogs". 
Medals will be handed out and the RSL and the politicians will talk proudly 
of the Anzac spirit being alive and well. The veterans will be marching and 
parading for most of this century.  Unborn generations of Australians will 
read about these heroes in their schoolbooks.  They will be taught that 
they fought for freedom in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Philippines, etc 
etc. The Courier Mail will tell the children of tomorrow how they must be 
grateful for the Veterans. The children will be given flags to wave and 
told to cheer and they will wave those flags and they will cheer and cheer 
and cheer.

So why fight such a tide, such a tsunami?  Far better to surf the wave of 
patriotism. Come my friends t'is not too late to join the madding 
crowd.  So then - it is Bravo for the Free World! God Bless America, the 
land that I love! All the way with the USA! Three cheers for their 
ever-loyal Australian supporters! Advance Australia Fair!  Aussie - Aussie 
- Aussie - Oi!  Oi! Oi! (Or should that be "Oink! Oink! Oink!"?).

2. About three years ago I borrowed from my older son Laughing Lost in the 
Mountains: Selected poems of Wang Wei. I intended to go through a few of 
them in my Sunday reading group and then return them.  Three years later we 
still have not given back the book.  We feel guilty about it but the reason 
for our dereliction of duty is that we have grown to love the poetry of the 
great Chinese artist and poet and try to finish off every reading session 
with one or two of his poems. Wang Wei (699-761 CE) was both an artist and 
a poet and the poems reflect his acute visual sense.  A Buddhist he 
emphasises the quiet joys of seclusion and union with nature.  Our absolute 
favourite is the following mysterious piece.

                 About Old Age, in Answer to a Poem by Sub-Prefect Zhang

                 In old age I ask only for peace
                 And do not care about things of the world.
                 I have found no good way to live
                 And brood about getting lost in my old forests.
                 The wind blowing in the pines loosens my belt.
                 The mountain moon is my lamp while I tinkle my lute
You ask,
How do you succeed or fail in life?
A fisherman's song is deep in the river.
The opening lines are clear in their celebration of the life of the hermit 
who rejects the world and dreams about union with nature or the achievement 
of subject -object identity.  But what does the reply to the question about 
how to succeed in life mean?  Why the fisherman's song? There is presumably 
a reference here to a classic Chinese poem where the fisherman contrasts 
the cleanliness of the river with the filth of the world. However I prefer 
to think of these lines as meaning that Zhang has asked the wrong 
question.  We are not here to "succeed" in life.  What we call success is 
all too clearly failure.  We must seek a spiritual enlightenment as well as 
the rational enlightenment that has brought us material progress.  For Wang 
Wei the path to this spiritual enlightenment lies through communion with 
nature in a life of aesthetic fullness as well as ascetic simplicity.

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